MIA: Real Political Leadership

Posted on 08. Dec, 2010 by in Gary's Blog

As a leadership consultant, I’m often dismayed by the major disconnect between the way politicians talk about themselves as leaders and their glaring inability to lead.  Here are two definitions to consider:

LEADERSHIP: the ability to organize a group of people to achieve a common goal

POLITICIAN: a seeker or holder of public office, who is often more concerned about winning favor or retaining power than about maintaining principles

As our country grapples with incredibly complex issues, it’s obvious which of these we need — and it couldn’t be clearer which one we’ve got. The leadership breakdown starts at the top.  President Obama is a very smart guy.  He ran a brilliant campaign that actually reignited people’s belief that hope was alive.   He entered office with a tremendous amount of leadership currency. Unfortunately he hasn’t spent it all that wisely.

The media and Mr. Obama’s opponents have characterized his problem as over-reaching.   I strongly disagree.  The president is “under-leading”. His leadership approach is that smart, logical, and pragmatic ideas will carry the day. As I have seen time and again in the corporate setting, for new ideas to make a difference you need buy-in for them. Specific steps for securing this commitment have been MIA in Washington.

While most people are excited by the idea of change and innovation, there is significant research that shows we are quite resistant to it. People like what they know and they are very skeptical of the unfamiliar.

Currently, we are in uncharted waters that cry out for new solutions. But Washington is not a place that rewards experimentation and innovation. The DC game is about maintaining the status quo and getting re-elected. The idea of leading differently is MIA in Washington.

The Republicans understand this reality well.  Since President Obama was elected they adopted a strategy of political opportunism that exploits people’s fears of the unknown (he’s not an American, he’s a Muslim, death panels). Their approach is about winning back power not about leading for the common good.  Mitch McConnell’s recent statement sums this up:  “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”.  Bi-partisan collaboration — that’s been MIA.

And the Democrats?  The Republicans ability to successfully play the fear card made many Democrats timid and reluctant to embrace meaningful change.  Standing up for principled new ideas — that’s been MIA.

Much has been made about how angry Americans are, because they feel no one is listening. While individuals are losing their jobs and their houses, elected officials are being wined and dined by lobbyists and using the filibuster to derail unemployment benefits.  In this time of crisis, people want to see positive change that makes a difference in their lives.  They’re angry because real leadership is MIA in Washington.

The Republicans are suggesting that a “back to the future” strategy is what we need.  That is a prescription for disaster.  What we need is an aggressive approach to our complex problems. But that means the incentives in Washington must change.  Being an obstructionist or simply yelling “fire” can’t be rewarded with 2 or 6 more years in office.  We need a little Steve Jobs or Herb Kelleher in our elected officials.  We need leaders who have the vision to say, “I’m willing to stick my neck out and try something new”. We need representatives who have the strength of character to commit to bold actions and stay the course. New problems require new solutions not retreads. We expect innovation and smart risk-taking from our business leaders.  Why in the world shouldn’t we expect this from our elected officials?  The truth is right now it’s the blind not leading the blind at a time we desperately need leaders with vision and courage.  These leadership qualities can’t be MIA in Washington for our country to thrive again.

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